Classic Tracks: Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens' "Streets of Bakersfield"

Aug 4, 2010 6:25 PM, By Barbara Schultz


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It’s still pretty surprising that Dwight Yoakam became a country music star. He was playing working-class bars and punk clubs in L.A., performing his original songs and classic-country covers for old-schoolers and college kids at a time when the hits coming out of Nashville were lush, overproduced—more pop than country. Yet with his fist wrapped around the torch passed by the pioneers of the Bakersfield sound—Merle Haggard, Wynn Stewart and Buck Owens—Yoakam and his producer/guitarist Pete Anderson managed to turn a throwback approach into hit after hit.

Yoakam and Anderson were leading sort of parallel lives, playing a lot of the same venues in L.A.’s roots-punk scene in the early ’80s, but they didn’t meet until a mutual acquaintance, steel guitarist Bob “Boo” Bernstein, suggested Anderson check out the act then known as Dwight Yoakam & The Kentucky Bourbons. “Boo said, ‘[Dwight’s] got this guitar player called Jerry McGee,’” Anderson says. “Jerry had played with The Ventures and a lot of other people, and being a curious guitar player, I thought, ‘I’d love to hear Jerry McGee.’”


"Streets of Bakersfield" MP3

Bernstein gave Anderson a tape of Yoakam’s material, and Anderson recognized that Yoakam had written some really strong songs. Then, “Out of the blue, I was playing with the same steel player, and he invited Dwight to sit in at a club we were playing at in the West Valley,” Anderson says. “He sang a couple of Merle Haggard songs, which I knew the licks to, and at the same time he’d had sort of a falling out with his guitarist.”

Yoakam asked if Anderson would play a gig that he had coming up. That first gig turned into many more, and when they had some really solid arrangements of Yoakam’s originals and several covers, they raised $5,000 to make an EP called Guitars, Cadillacs, etc. etc. in Brian Levi’s Excalibur studio in Studio City, Calif.

“Then Warner Bros. came to the party and signed us, turned it into an album with four more songs, and the record sold 2 million copies,” Anderson says. Yoakam’s recording b

udget also went up a bit. “He’d cut that EP on spec or partly on a credit card,” engineer Dusty Wakeman recalls, “but when I came on board and we cut the four other songs to turn the EP into an album, that was the first time we went to Capitol.” At that time, Wakeman owned and operated Mad Dog Studios in Venice, Calif., and had met Anderson when the two worked together recording the first Town South of Bakersfield album—a seminal record in the history of country music in L.A.

Capitol Studios (Hollywood) hosted sessions for Yoakam’s first three albums: Guitars, Cadillacs (1986), Hillbilly Deluxe (’87) and Buenos Noches From a Lonely Room (’88), which includes “Streets of Bakersfield.” Wakeman engineered those first three albums and beyond. He says Yoakam had enough material written for all three records before sessions began, so Yoakam and Anderson planned ahead to create a balanced track list for three albums. When they were tracking to flesh out the EP, Wakeman says, “We felt like, any day, some adult’s going to throw us out of here: ‘What are you kids doing in here? Get out!’ Pete and I were like, ‘Wow, look at us! We’re at Capitol!’”

Yoakam, Anderson and the band went on the road to promote Guitars, Cadillacs, and it was during this time, as his own career began to really build steam, that Yoakam managed to coax the legendary Buck Owens—then in his mid-’50s—out of premature retirement. “Dwight met Buck at the radio station [owned by Owens] in Bakersfield, and somehow he got Buck to sit in at a fair or something,” Anderson recalls.

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